In a throwback to debates among policymakers in the 1960s, when new medical literature attributed harmful effects to tobacco use, the parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation has ignored the findings of decades of medical research to recommend that the Union health ministry set up a medical board to examine the health effects of tobacco on an Indian population before mandating that pictorial warnings cover 85 per cent of tobacco-product packages. According to the chairman of the committee, BJP MP Dilip Gandhi, Indian exceptionalism extends to our biology: “Whether at all [tobacco] actually causes cancer or other diseases is subject to a study in the country… the basis of our stance towards tobacco products are basically studies that have happened in a foreign setting.”
This fantastic claim runs contrary to all scientific research, which has unequivocally established that exposure to tobacco smoke causes death, disease and disability among all humans — a category that even Gandhi would concede includes Indians. A wealth of literature, funded by external and domestic agencies, definitively links tobacco use in India to the prevalence of lung and other cancers. To name just two: A 2008 study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medical Research used a nationally representative sample to find that smoking causes a large and growing number of premature deaths in India. This study was supported by the Office of the Registrar General — a government body. Another study, published earlier this year by Indian researchers based in India, found statistically significant excess risks among tobacco chewers for respiratory tuberculosis, stroke and cancer, compared to never-tobacco chewers.
The committee’s recommendation is irresponsible and actively harmful. It encourages the country’s nodal policymaker on health to reinvent the wheel, delaying potentially life-saving interventions, all because of a dangerous suspicion of “foreign” medicine.